US President Donald Trump wants a Space Force, a new military service that he has said is needed to ensure US dominance in space.
However, the idea is gaining little traction at the US Department of Defense, where US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has said that it would add burdensome bureaucracy and unwanted costs.
The Pentagon has acknowledged a need to revamp its much-criticized approach to defending US economic and security interests in space, and it is moving in that direction, but it is unclear whether that will satisfy Trump, who wants to go even further by creating a separate military space service.
The US administration plans to this week announce the results of a Pentagon study that is expected to call for creating a new military command — US Space Command — to consolidate space warfighting forces and making other organizational changes short of establishing a separate service, which only the US Congress can do.
Any legislative proposal to create a separate service would likely not be put on the table until next year.
Mattis, who prior to Trump’s “Space Force” announcement in June said that he opposes creating a new branch of the military for space, said afterward that it would require “a lot of detailed planning.”
Mattis is allied on the matter with key Republicans on Capitol Hill including US Senator James Inhofe, a member of the Senate Committee on the Armed Services who opposes a separate Space Force, but is open to creating a Space Command.
The command would coordinate the use of space forces of existing services, such as those that operate military satellites, but would not be a separate service.
US Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Dana White on Friday said that she believes that consolidating space functions would “ensure we move at the speed of relevancy.”
“Space is a joint warfighting domain that the US must dominate,” White said.
Trump on Tuesday last week said that he had ordered the Pentagon to begin the process of creating a Space Force as a new branch of the military, but he did not repeat the phrase he used in June — a “separate but equal” service.
That may open the possibility of the Pentagon proposing to establish a cadre of space experts that would be part of a space “corps” attached to the US Air Force rather than as a separate service.
On Friday, Trump hailed the news that NASA has named the astronauts who are to ride the first commercial capsules into orbit next year.
“We have the greatest facilities in the world and we are now letting the private sector pay to use them,” he tweeted. “Exciting things happening. Space Force!”
Trump’s focus has generated an unusual level of talk about space, but with little clarity.
“At the moment, there is no concrete proposal on the table for what a Space Force will look like or what it will do,” said Brian Weeden, an air force veteran who is director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, which promotes peaceful uses of outer space. “It’s just sort of a notional concept.”
Creating a new service would not address what is generally seen as a need for a more coherent force to defend US interests in space, as by law a service recruits, trains and equips troops, but does not do combat, Weeden said.
That is why a Space Command is being considered, as it would be the combat arm for space, much as US Central Command is the organization responsible for combat operations in the Middle East.
Aside from organizational issues, the Pentagon’s role in space is under scrutiny because of a recognition that the US is increasingly reliant on satellites that are difficult to protect in space.
Satellites provide communications, navigation, intelligence and other services vital to the military and the economy. Whereas space has long been the US’ technological edge, it is increasingly seen as its Achilles’ heel.
War in space is not just Hollywood fiction. The US’ intelligence agencies this year reported that Russia and China are pursuing “nondestructive and destructive” anti-satellite weapons for use during war.
A related problem that the Pentagon has struggled to address is the sluggish pace of developing and acquiring satellites through the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which could be replaced by a new space development agency.
In an interim report to Congress in March on ways to reorganize its space organizations, the Pentagon said that it is making changes to “ensure that we are prepared for” potential conflicts in space.
This includes making satellites more resilient to potential attack by Russia or China, it said.
Deborah James, who was the civilian leader of the air force for the final three years of former US president Barack Obama’s administration, on Monday last week told a think tank forum that creating a separate Space Force would not address the legitimate concerns about US space defenses.
One of the criticisms of the air force, which is the primary service responsible for military satellites, is that it devotes too little money and attention to space.
“If money is your issue, Space Force is not your answer,” James said.
If the logic of creating a separate space service were applied broadly, it would imply other radical changes, such as creating a single nuclear service by combining management of the strategic nuclear weapons of the air force and navy, which no one is considering, James added.
Additional reporting by Lolita Baldor
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